Q&A with Fantastic Negrito, his new album is an exhilarating ode to the power of family and the enduring resilience of our shared humanity

"I just hope we can take it one step at a time, take it one day at a time and do better. I do not like to deal with fear, I do not think like that. You can’t think in fear, in these terms. It is impossible to do that. I'm not afraid of anything, I hope we can all make better choices. Because it really is on us. It does not lie in a higher power, it is the choices you make when you hang up this phone, the choices I make. This is the power. I hope we make good choices because we have great power."

The Wonderful World of Fantastic Negrito

Part love story, part history lesson, Fantastic Negrito’s extraordinary new album and film, White Jesus Black Problems (out June 3 via his label Storefront Records), is an exhilarating ode to the power of family and the enduring resilience of our shared humanity. Inspired by the illegal, interracial romance of his seventh-generation grandparents—a white indentured servant and an enslaved Black man—in 1750s Virginia, the collection is bold and thought provoking, grappling with racism, capitalism, and the very meaning of freedom itself, all without ever losing sight of the desire and determination at the heart of the tale. While each track could stand easily on its own, stepping back to absorb the album and its companion film in their full context yields a far more transcendent experience, one that challenges our notions of who we are, where we come from, and where we’re headed.

(Fantastic Negrito / Photo by Travis Shinn Photography)

Born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, Negrito grew up in an orthodox Muslim household in Oakland, CA. After a car cash nearly robbed him of his ability to play guitar, he began an unlikely redemption arc in 2015, when he won the first NPR Tiny Desk Contest. In the years to come, Negrito would go on to take home three consecutive GRAMMYs for Best Contemporary Blues Album, tour with everyone from Sturgill Simpson to Chris Cornell, collaborate with the likes of Sting and E-40, launch his own Storefront Records label, perform at nearly every major festival on the map, and found the Revolution Plantation, an urban farm aimed at youth education and empowerment.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Transcription: Katerina Lefkidou

Special Thanks: Dimitris Syrengelas, Maria Ioannou, Eleni Kelepouri (Menta Art Events)

What do you miss most from the music and the feeling of the past?

Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not a person who misses things. I try not to get too sentimental, whatever happens is a learning moment whether it’s good or bad. It happens and we go through it, we get something from it, we learn something from it. So, I didn’t really miss touring because in replace of that, there was this pandemic, which was an opportunity for all these other things to happen. I try not to miss things, I know it’s probably not the answer that sounds better, but it’s an honest one.

Where does your creative drive come from?

In this new album, “White Jesus, Black Problems” my creative drive came from discovering a story, buried deep in the history of my ancestors, which was the story in the 1700s, of my white Scottish grand-mother who was an indentured servant, having a union with my black enslaved grand-father, which was forbidden. And I was very shocked to find out all this information. So, in this particular album, that was my inspiration, on past albums I’ve had other inspirations. Inspiration comes, it’s there and when you have it, it’s like a fuel, it’s like petrol, you just go based on what is presented to you. This story really shook up my family, everything I thought I knew about myself was a complete lie. So, I had the time during this pandemic to deal with that and I created a film, a visual album, I’m really inspired by this project, and I will make an acoustic version of the album also, which will probably come out by the end of the year. So yeah, lots of inspiration. When you look around the world, there’s so much inspiration to do great things or terrible things, whatever we choose as human beings.

Too many experiences in your life, too many experiences in music. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience?

I think I have learned not to give up, that tragic things, things that are bad, sometimes are the greatest teachers sometimes. That’s the main thing I have learned. I have also learned, I’m discovering my roots, learned I came from people like that. I feel this way because I came from people who didn’t give up. When I started looking for my family, I thought, "Wow, these people never gave up." I think this is the lesson, you turn something tragic into something. When I made this film, I had never done anything like this before, what a great opportunity to make a film about something very powerful. The lesson there was that this is a sad story for people who were enslaved, who were indentured servants. Let's find what’s good in there. Oh, there was a love story. There was a great message of love. People would love, no matter what. No matter what rules you set up for them, when they find love, they will do anything to make love happen.

"Fantastic Negrito is a performer. I do not try to be Fantastic Negrito all the time, that's something I do and then I live on the farm. So, my position on this is that Fantastic-Negrito is a storyteller. He is the artist, and he is a performer. You have to be very careful with them. Because you have to remember that they give a show." (Fantastic Negrito / Photo by Sakie Bustos)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of black roots music from blues and rhythm n’ blues to roots music to gospel to hip hop and beyond?

Well, I mean this our gift to the world. This music I mean everywhere I go in the world people are doing this music and I think it's a beautiful thing. Definitely this came from Africa and then slave trade happened the cultures combined and clashed with each other. And from that came something great, something horrible and something great. This music that we all listen to today, you can’t go anywhere without listening to any jazz, blues, funk. Rhythm and blues, rock. Nowhere. You will hear reggae, something. So, I think that, out of this great misery, comes great creativity arises, it’s pretty normal. I think it is very easy to follow the lines, it’s pretty simple.

You are very popular in Europe; you are coming again this summer. Do you notice any difference between European and the US scene?

Not only in Europe but also in America, you find differences even in California and the Central West. I think there are differences everywhere, but what brings everyone together as a common feature is the love of music. I think as human beings it is a necessity, we need music. We need stories, we need healing. We need therapy. I try to find what we have in common, despite what is different, because of course it will be different, but I like to focus on what we have in common. And I think what we have in common is that we have the need to share, to communicate, to love, to be loved.

What is the difference between Xavier's philosophy and Fantastic Negrito's music philosophy?

Fantastic Negrito is a performer. I do not try to be Fantastic Negrito all the time, that's something I do and then I live on the farm. So, my position on this is that Fantastic-Negrito is a storyteller. He is the artist, and he is a performer. You have to be very careful with them. Because you have to remember that they give a show.

"This music that we all listen to today, you can’t go anywhere without listening to any jazz, blues, funk. Rhythm and blues, rock. Nowhere. You will hear reggae, something. So, I think that, out of this great misery, comes great creativity arises, it’s pretty normal. I think it is very easy to follow the lines, it’s pretty simple." (Fantastic Negrito / Photo by Travis Shinn Photography)

You are a survivor in this life. What do you think is key to a life well lived?

I see it alike this: I have managed to survive, only because of everything that came before me. A survivor in music because there have been so many great artists. Skip James, all of them, there are so many great artists who have survived before me. And of course, the great revelation to me was the discovery of my family, my family basically lied about who we were and then I discovered the truth. So maybe I think part of surviving is doing what you have to do to survive. I think that they lied to survive. My family they wanted us to feel like we have dignity. They were proud and wanted to give that to their children, so they told them many lies. I think the thing about survival has to do with being resilient. Like water. Be able to adapt. I come from seven generations of people who did that. So, I wanted to talk about them. They are the great teachers. Our teachers are our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers and our great-grandparents. These are our teachers. And we need to learn from them so that we do not repeat what we are repeat now, such as greed, war, repeat, repeat. So, the important thing is to adapt. To be versatile. Don’t fear change, change is happening every day. From what I have read, I found this document of Elizabeth Gallimore and thought, there you go man, they are survivors. A white woman that chooses to have a love union with an enslaved person, and then they survived, my God, I have survival in my blood. It's very important to be able to tell this story, because this story is about survival.

How do you want your music and lyrics to influence people?

I do not want anything. If you want something, you will get in trouble. You know what I mean? I want this woman. I want this ice cream, I want this cake, I want this money. You got a problem. I think the liberating side at this time in my life as an artist is that I did not want anything. It was pure. I didn’t want anything, I just wanted to tell the truth the best that I can tell it, I want be a contributor as a human being. I think these are things that are good to want, to be service. If I stay, there I'm fine. If I start wanting these other things, we have a problem. I know I have stories to tell, and I want to tell you what I want. I do not know what will happen, but I want to tell you and I want to communicate with you, because I think it is important as people to communicate, we cross borders, we cross boundaries, I want to look you in the eye, do you understand what I mean? I want to tell you my story, I want to know yours. These are things I really want, but I started wanting less. Of everything.            (Photo: Fantastic Negrito)

"I think I would like to live right now. I think right now because it that’s where it is, that’s where it’s happening, this is where my loved ones are, and I want to be right here. In a dream world I think I would like to live a thousand years later to see if we learned anything. If we learned anything on this earth. Or are we still repeating. Are we still repeating war, are we still repeating greed, hate? Maybe in a thousand years it will be interesting. Did we learn how to heal the planet? Did we learn to respect the Earth? Did we learn how to value life over money? People over profit? I would love to see that to test."

You talked about your black mother earlier, I would like to ask you, how did the idea for your farm start?

I learned that I come from free black farmers on my mother's side. Not on my father's side, those people came from slavery. On my mother's side came free farmers, so I did not know it was in my blood, again. The seventh generation of my grandparents created free black people. And these people became farmers, they had land in their property, they knew how to read and write. And this is a legacy of how something great can be done in a bad situation. That they lived in slavery in the South and Virginia and were very lucky to be free and seize the opportunity to do great things. I think I believe in this philosophy, that you have the opportunity to eat well, to provide to your neighbor, you have the opportunity for financial autonomy, you have the opportunity for mental health. If you work the soil, with the plants, in the sun, in the fresh air, this is the beauty of life. There are so many beneficial things that come from farming. Small farms, city farms, I live in the city.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you and you keep it like a motto in your life?

Everything comes to my grandmother. Everything, I mean, I think my grandmother was my greatest teacher and I think the best advice she ever gave me, she was from the South, West Virginia I said grandmother tell me story about how bad it was and how bad white people treated you, I wanna know. And then my grandmother said something very powerful, she said honey, son let me tell you something, we all depended on each other. We didn’t have to ask white people for anything. And I remember that shocked me, I’d never really heard that. She said we were on our farm, we had chickens, we had cows, we had vegetables, we had pigs, we didn’t have to ask people. And I think that was very powerful to me, some of the best advice I got. I think what my grandmother was saying, was “Hey, be independent. Be truthful. And work with people and build coalition. “ I think she was saying that in her simple country talk. And you know, whenever you’re asking somebody for something you’re in trouble. So that came from grandma.

What does the blues mean to you?

It means the beginning. It means hope. It means telling a story. It means visceral feeling. It means survival. It means legacy.                     (Photo: Fantastic Negrito & Taj Mahal)

"I think I have learned not to give up, that tragic things, things that are bad, sometimes are the greatest teachers sometimes. That’s the main thing I have learned. I have also learned, I’m discovering my roots, learned I came from people like that. I feel this way because I came from people who didn’t give up. When I started looking for my family, I thought, "Wow, these people never gave up." I think this is the lesson, you turn something tragic into something. When I made this film, I had never done anything like this before, what a great opportunity to make a film about something very powerful. The lesson there was that this is a sad story for people who were enslaved, who were indentured servants."

Human rights, civil rights, social rights. What is the impact of black roots music on socio-political developments?

All you have to do is look around you and see it everywhere. You can even see him in Korea with boy-bands playing R'n'B music from the 90s. I think you look around the world, kids love rap and hip hop and they can have a voice through this music and it exists in every language on the planet. In rock music. It's major and it is everywhere, black roots music for people all over the world is a means of expression.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where would you really want to go with a time machine?

I think I would like to live right now. I think right now because it that’s where it is, that’s where it’s happening, this is where my loved ones are, and I want to be right here. In a dream world I think I would like to live a thousand years later to see if we learned anything. If we learned anything on this earth. Or are we still repeating. Are we still repeating war, are we still repeating greed, hate? Maybe in a thousand years it will be interesting. Did we learn how to heal the planet? Did we learn to respect the Earth? Did we learn how to value life over money? People over profit? I would love to see that to test.

Your hopes and fear for the future?

I just hope we can take it one step at a time, take it one day at a time and do better. I do not like to deal with fear, I do not think like that. You can’t think in fear, in these terms. It is impossible to do that. I'm not afraid of anything, I hope we can all make better choices. Because it really is on us. It does not lie in a higher power, it is the choices you make when you hang up this phone, the choices I make. This is the power. I hope we make good choices because we have great power.

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(Fantastic Negrito / Photo by Travis Shinn Photography)

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